At a webinar on Sunday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath spoke about the problems of those who have to move out of the state to earn their livelihoods. He announced that a “Migration Commission” will be established to help workers who have returned to the state amid the lockdown. The Commission will find ways to guarantee social security to workers, provide them jobs according to their skills. The CM also criticised other states for not taking care of workers from UP during the lockdown. For sure, the salience of welfare schemes for migrants — insurance, legal support, unemployment allowance — and the need for better employment avenues for them, cannot be overstated. The UP CM’s stated concern for the dignity of workers from the state in workplaces in other states is also welcome. But a relevant intervention on an important issue framed by the ongoing public health emergency assumed a problematic overtone when the UP CM said: “Without our permission, our people cannot be taken by other states”. Quite simply, what the chief minister has proposed is against the interests of the workers he is professing concern for. It also goes against a fundamental tenet of the Constitution: Clauses d and e of Article 19 guarantee citizens the right to move freely throughout the country.
The public exchange on the issue of the stranded and vulnerable migrant workforce has thrown up several questionable and unseemly interventions so far. More than 20 lakh migrants have reportedly returned to UP in the two months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown dried up their sources of livelihood. While the UP government did mobilise buses to ferry back stranded migrants, a large number of them have had to undertake arduous journeys to return home. Earlier this month, the UP government sparred with the government of Maharashtra over logistics for the returning migrants. Last week, it engaged in a battle of one-upmanship with the Opposition Congress over buses to transport workers back to the state. Unfortunately, on this issue, the Adityanath government does not seem to be an exception. Buses from Jharkhand have reportedly been turned back from the Bengal border, the Bihar government gave only a reluctant nod to bringing migrants by Shramik Special trains, Jharkhand has accused Chhattisgarh of sending back people who tested COVID-19, and it took a public uproar for the Karnataka government to revoke its order cancelling trains for migrants.
The UP government can be said to be attempting to use the emergency created by the pandemic to give itself undue powers over its citizens. The decision of workers to return to their worksites, or not, is best left to them. Of course, the home states may have legitimate worries about their working conditions. Negotiations between states should inform efforts to create and strengthen social security for workers — not unilateral, unconstitutional decisions.
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